“Social Status of Writers”: Fan Letter Analysis, 1939

In an effort to contextualize the fan letters to Maureen Daly, I turned to a little then-contemporary fan mail analysis. This stuff is waaaaaay before the fandom analysis of Jenkins, Sandvoss, etc. In particular, I came across the following wee article:

Sayre, Jeanette. “Progress in Radio Fan-Mail Analysis.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 3.2 (April, 1939): 272-278.

Now, Sayre is obviously looking at radio fan letters, rather than letters to authors. Still, both the stats she generates (and her methods for gaining and interpreting those stats) are weirdly fascinating. First, we have the obligatory “fans are crazy but not really, really crazy”:

In recent years fan-letter writers have been thought to be the neurotics, the deviates, the abnormal among the listeners, and so it has been cautioned that fan mail should be disregarded as an index of anything. As an answer to this, the theory has been proposed that fan-letter writers were not neurotic in what they thought, but in the fact that they wrote at all. They merely expressed attitudes held by other listeners, but different from them in their ability to transgress the barrier between themselves and the impersonal broadcasting company. (272)

(Seriously, this sounds so, so familiar when one looks back over the three generations of recent fandom scholarship).

Still, Sayre establishes some truly interesting stats. For example, she tabulates fan letter writers based on who wrote letters to “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.” In total, there were 26,008 separate names of people who had written at least one letter over the course of the previous listening season. People from Oklahoma, then, were not overly into writing fan letters to that particular radio broadcast in 1939, whereas people in both Washington State and, waaaay across the country, in Washington, D.C., were SUPER into fan letters:


Sayre also noted a difference in the number of writers living in cities versus small towns:

the proportion of writers living in cities of over 100,000 population is significantly high. This is especially curious in view of the fact that commentators on fan mail feel that in most cases fan-letter writers are in small towns. (274)

And then she turns briefly to gender:

Women’s letters are different from men’s. In an analysis of the April 28 program, it was found that the women who wrote were much more likely than the men to add gratuitous comment: The men merely requested the bulletin; the women added some word of praise or blame. (276)

Finally, Sayre comes to the aspect that I find equal parts most fascinating and most disturbing: the “Social Status of Writers”:

In an effort to divide the remainder of the fan mail according to some criteria which would be fairly objective and fairly reliable when used by other analysts, the following criteria were used to classify letters according to the social class or sophistication of the writer: (1) Paper: quality–cleanliness–letterhead; (2) Forms: spacing of writing–punctuation–form of salutation–signature–spelling; (3) Content: words and phrases used.

I’ll admit that my eyebrows were already a little raised when I read this bit. Sayre’s methodology, however, only gets more interesting (and by “interesting” I actually mean “disturbing”):

If a letter fell down on two of the three counts, it was put into the “low” social grouping; if on only one, it went in the “high” class. Under “paper,” such things as kitchen memos and ruled paper were considered “low” while engraved letterheads and personalized stationary were considered “high.” Under “form,” poor spacing, as when the entire letter was written in the top inch of the page, or when the salutation was inches away from the letter, was considered “poor.” Flagrantly incorrect punctuation was considered “low.” Such salutations as “Gents” and such signatures as “always your friend, Jim H.” were also in the lower class. Content in the letters varied from the jovial “Gee! Did I get a thrill out of your last meeting” to “Permit me to compliment you on your extremely judicious handling of a difficult subject.”

Wow. Wow. Wow. Have bad spacial sense? You’re therefore “poor,” and thus “low.”


(or at least your letter has).

Anyway, I’ll admit it: I love reading all of the fan letters to Maureen Daly, but sometimes studying the secondary sources of the same time period can be equally fascinating!